Play On by Mick Fleetwood

Books Reviews
Play On by Mick Fleetwood

Halfway through Mick Fleetwood’s new autobiography, Play On: Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac, I found myself listing important historical figures whose life stories I know next to nothing about: Joan of Arc, Stonewall Jackson, the Romanov sisters, Django Reinhardt, Le Corbusier.…

I was feeling guilty. I’ve never cracked open a book about Ada Lovelace or the Dali Lama, but this was my second jaunt through a memoir by a drummer who nicknamed his band’s most misunderstood album after his penis. (That would be 1979’s Tusk, of course, although 1973’s Penguin is a more creative guess). While I can’t begin to describe what George C. Marshall did to merit a 560-page biography this past October (other than rebuild Europe after WWII), I could easily, if challenged, recite in order the 16 different guitar players and singers who’ve rotated in and out of Fleetwood Mac since its founding in 1967.

And while I possess only a fuzzy sense of Mata Hari’s nationality and exactly which of the Allied nations executed her in 1917, I can tell you the small role that Birmingham, Alabama, played in Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks’ fledgling pre-Mac career, and why Nicks’ “Silver Springs” had to wait 20 years to become the show-stopping tearjerker it’s been since 1997’s The Dance. I can even tell you which of Christine McVie’s songs on 1982’s undervalued Mirage are about her tempestuous, two-year romance with the Beach Boys’ doomed Dennis Wilson. (Basically, every Christine McVie song on that album).

This is my way of admitting that listening to pop music has always gone hand in hand with reading. I seem to feel incomplete doing one without doing the other, so as I cycle in and out of an obsession with a performer or group as I’ve been doing with Fleetwood Mac this fall, my bookshelves swell.

On a practical level, this means that the sucker who shells out 60 bucks for the 35th-anniversary edition of Rumours on DVD-Audio is the same guy who manages to accumulate not only both Fleetwood autobiographies but all three editions of original bassist Bob Brunning’s biography of the group (1990, 1998, 2004), two books on the making of Rumours, one on Tusk, a tell-all by Buckingham’s girlfriend in the band’s heyday, some patchy overviews of Nicks’ romantic entanglements and a coffee-table tome whose pictures allow me to chart, with archeological precision, the evolution of John McVie’s facial hair.

Clearly, I need an intervention, but it didn’t happen before December 17, when I occupied Row V at the Atlanta stop of the Mac’s On With the Show Tour. Play On is basically a souvenir of this nostalgia-stoking, money-making juggernaut, which has been filling arenas since September 2014 and which is slated to continue deep into 2015. As far as rock ‘n’ roll memoirs go, the book is an amiable career recap, rehearsing once again Fleetwood Mac’s oft-documented evolution from its birth as a British blues troupe through its rudderless years at the mercy of a revolving door of songwriters and front men before the arrival of Buckingham and Nicks catalyzed success and excess.

The chief appeal of this latest installment of the long-running soap opera? Its sense of closure: after a 16-year retirement, Christine McVie came back to the lineup, performing “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me” and “Songbird.” John McVie has survived a cancer scare. As Fleetwood reports in his closing pages, all signs point to a happy, collegial 2015 for a band that once upon a time nothing short of a presidential inauguration could reunite.

Yet that same sense of coming from a happy place is one reason that Play On doesn’t feel half as candid as Fleetwood’s previous autobiography, the long-out-of-print Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac (1990). That book appeared as the band entered its early-nineties’ nadir after the departure of the mercurial Buckingham, FM’s de facto leader and musical conscience. One major omission from the new autobiography is the earlier book’s detailed description of an August 7, 1987, confrontation in which the group’s self-styled Brian Wilson lashed out physically against Nicks when his bandmates tried to browbeat him into touring behind their hit album Tango in the Night.

To his credit, Fleetwood concedes in Play On that Buckingham had legitimate reasons for ditching the group even as it enjoyed its biggest commercial success since 1977’s gazillion-selling Rumours: both he and Nicks were in the throes of addiction. Nevertheless, reading this new autobiography, one senses Fleetwood’s aversion to stirring the pot by referring to Buckingham’s once volatile reputation, making the anecdote feel all the more conspicuous by its absence, especially when the story is detailed in any number of other FM books. “Historically that was not a happy day,” Fleetwood simply writes, and the passage feels sanitized and evasive.

Ultimately, the differences between Fleetwood and Play On remind us that most rock ‘n’ roll books are designed to serve a specific narrative at any given moment in a performer or group’s biography. Rarely are they written for the ages. If a definitive Fleetwood Mac memoir ever publishes, it’s most likely to come from Nicks, whose interviews display the wit and savvy self-awareness needed to elevate an autobiography to the must-read status of Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Keith Richards’ Life (both 2010).

This past fall, Billboard published a conversation with the songstress in which she confirmed long-running gossip that Tusk’s “Sara” was inspired in part by an unplanned pregnancy with the Eagles’ Don Henley. The story received a great deal of blogosphere attention, thanks to Billboard’s blatantly sensational headline (“STEVIE NICKS ADMITS TO PAST PREGNANCY WITH DON HENLEY AND MORE ABOUT HER WILD HISTORY”). The interview even inspired Gawker to republish a passage from Marc Eliot’s To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles (1998) that included a rather cavalier quote from Henley about the ensuing abortion. Overlooked amid the hubbub over Nicks’ admission was her insistence to Billboard that she didn’t plan to write her autobiography any time soon:

“The world is not ready for my memoir, I guarantee you. All of the men I hung out with are on their third wives by now, and the wives are all under 30. If I were to write what really happened between 1972 and now, a lot of people would be very angry with me. It’ll happen someday, just not for a very long time. I won’t write a book until everybody is so old that they no longer care. Like, ‘I’m ninety, I don’t care what you write about me.’ I am loyal to a fault. And I have a certain loyalty to these people that I love because I do love them, and I will always love them. I cannot throw any of them under the bus until I absolutely know that they will not care.”

In the absence of that book, Fleetwood’s second autobiography serves as a pleasant—if somewhat predictable—reminder of his band’s claim to rock ‘n’ roll history. The best moments tend to be personal: the recent end of Fleetwood’s marriage is poignantly discussed, and there is something warm and reassuring about the obvious affection that radiates for his first love, Jenny Boyd (sister of Pattie Boyd of George Harrison and Eric Clapton fame). Musicians will enjoy Fleetwood’s descriptions of his drumming style, while fans who still wince at clips of Hillary Clinton clapping on the wrong beat to “Don’t Stop” at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ball may blanch at some of the more fawning references to the First Couple. Ultimately, the book is a reminder of why Fleetwood remains a father figure even to his peers: he works as hard at mending fences and treating bandmates fairly as he does at keeping a steady beat.

Kirk Curnutt lives and writes in Montgomery, where he volunteers at the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum and helps organize the annual Alabama Book Festival. The author of several books on the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, he has also published two novels, Breathing Out the Ghost and Dixie Noir. A third, Raising Aphrodite, will be published in 2015.

Share Tweet Submit Pin